As the lakes area moves into summer, Baxter City Council members looked at what things could look like as city parks open.
The city closed down the park facilities March 17 in keeping with the state’s stay-at-home order, which lifted Monday, May 18, allowing for outdoor recreation including the opening of local parks, but limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
At the council’s Tuesday telemeeting via Zoom, City Administrator Brad Chapulis said it would take about three days to prep and clean park facilities. Signs would be installed noting cleaning protocols, as recommended by the League of Minnesota Cities, and would let people know play would be at their own risk. Hiring seasonal staff is needed to maintain the city’s park facilities, Chapulis added. The council authorized the hiring of seasonal help and agreed the parks will reopen as soon as possible.
In short order the discussion went to the city’s summer mainstay — Whipple Beach.
“This is one area of our parks system that will more than likely have a high probability of having gatherings of more than 10 persons, as well as nonobservation of the social distancing guidelines that are outlined by the CDC and the MDH,” Chapulis said, noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health. “During the temporary closure of the facilities we did observe an increase in uncollected trash and vandalism during that time.”
Chapulis said hiring seasonal help will assist in monitoring activities during the day. Signs at the beach will be aimed at discouraging large gatherings. Police officers would monitor the park more frequently to also serve as a deterrent.
The city previously canceled scheduled rentals for May and, with the 10 person limit still in effect, the council agreed to suspend park rental of facilities.
“We are still at a point where recreational programming cannot commence,” Chapulis noted, and said the council can look at that issue again at its June 2 session.
Council member Todd Holman said he was in favor of opening with the hiring of seasonal help, along with canceling and refunding the June reservations so the city isn’t promoting gatherings larger than 10 people. There were no reservations for July when the facilities were shut down.
Mayor Darrel Olson said it was only fair to let people know rather than stringing them along so they could make other arrangements.
“What I really worry about, you know, with regard to opening the parks and kind of what undue burden comes on city staff, whether it’s police or seasonals or whomever is working Whipple Beach in particular,” Holman said, noting the packed beaches in other states as they reopened.
“I just don’t know how to solve that beach thing,” Holman said, adding people are already there. “But 80 degrees, they are really going to be there.”
Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted said the problem with the beach is everybody’s interpretation of a group of 10 is going to be a little bit different. Added into the potential confusion is the group of 10 doesn’t include immediate family who are presumed to already be exposed to each other with shared living arrangements.
“So if we open up that facility are we saying no more than 10 people beyond the playground onto the sand?” Exsted asked. Or, he said, do people cluster in small groups of 10? “I don’t know what the right answer is. … I’m not pushing to not open. I’m just saying we are going to be in a tough spot more than likely as a law enforcement group.”
Exsted said the governor has advocated education over enforcement. Exsted agreed Whipple Beach is the specific place of concern as it warms up over the next couple of weeks.
Chapulis said they know people want to be out and active and most people live here because of the lakes and the environment. But, he said, the hope is education with the pandemic will have people self-monitoring.
If it becomes a more blatant defiance of the social distancing order, Chapulis said they’ll have to look at closing the beach. Chapulis said he hoped people will maintain the social distancing and respect for people’s health and safety.
For Olson, one of the sad parts was the work the police department put in to build relationships and rapport in the community.
“This just puts them in a bad situation,” he said. “You know the governor’s executive orders become law.” Forcing law enforcement to either break the law or ignore it isn’t fair to the police department, Olson said. “I don’t know what the answer is because it’s a lose-lose deal either way.”
Council member Mark Cross questioned why the parks couldn’t open if people adhere to the guidelines and do social distancing and limit to 10 people.
The city needs to be nimble, council member Zach Tabatt said.
“It takes one obstinate member of the public at the beach to turn an educational situation for a police officer into something that is forced into a situation none of us want,” Tabatt said, adding the council needed to be the responsible group and the bad guys “because we can’t continually put our police officers in a position of having to enforce those things if we have issues popping up that we could prevent, especially considering I just read a headline that there’s 21 new cases in Brainerd right now.”
Tabatt was referring to the COVID-19 cases discovered with testing at Good Samaritan Society-Bethany over the past weekend.
“I just don’t know that unwinding everything is guaranteed to continue on a linear path that way,” Tabatt said. “I’m open to following along on that path at this point, but I’m not feeling comfortable that, that we’re going to just continue opening more and more over time here in the shorter term.”
Exsted said he was not opposed to reopening and, with the local emergency order, giving staff the ability to go in and close a trouble spot. What if there are hundreds of people on the beach and no one was listening? That was one of the scenarios Exsted considered. The focus has been on education and while people may grumble, they’ve been understanding, Exsted said, but he noted at 80 degrees, the beach could be quite busy.
“We’ve all been in the deep freeze here for six or seven months,” Exsted said. “We’ve got some heat coming and a bunch of people that want to get out. I just see some potential issues at Whipple Beach that we may not be able to negotiate through. A super large crowd with a limited number of law enforcement, but the flip side is maybe everybody will be respectful and understanding and I guess I’m kind of holding out hope for that, too.”